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The benefit of science communication and science conference organization for graduate students

Much effort is put into framing and conceptualizing the effective discussion of science and its relationship with society. To meet the increasing need for scientific understanding amongst the general public, the field of science communication has vastly expanded in recent years. However, we still largely lack basic training in undergraduate and graduate education to prepare future researchers to cope with this demand.

To counter this educational gap, students need the opportunity to engage in various science communication events such as conferences and symposia, science slams, and pop science journalism to develop ways to effectively discuss and communicate science with diverse audiences. Such skills will allow a geneticist to confidently and coherently discuss topics such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing that have attracted a lot of public attention and apprehension. An infection biologist may counter “Anti-Vaxxers” and the resurgence of preventable viral infections such as measles and flu, when armed with the requisite communications skills and experience.

Thus, we set out to organize a conference to stimulate discussions within the scientific community and beyond regarding public perception of science. Our expectations were high and we knew that organizing a conference would improve our management and communication skills, ability to multitask, creativity, and personable demeanor.

We, a handful of senior PhD students, wanted to organize something big, something that would last and motivate others to do the same. We wanted to bring together biomedical scientists and intellectuals from other fields such as philosophy and political science to build bridges between these distant poles and to broaden the perspectives of participants.

We all believe that guiding the research of today ultimately shapes the future and that our conference would provide a unique forum to learn from experiences of the past and reconcile the ever-diversifying research fields of infection biology. Herein we convey what we learned to encourage future students to enrich their own learning environments with such events.

We intended to create an environment where junior researchers could meet peers from fields other than their own, while also engaging with senior scientists whose names they know from papers and books. In addition to promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, we wanted to foster an out‐of‐the‐box view of research questions well beyond a researcher’s usual work environment.

In plenary sessions, we wanted to allow enough time for discussions and exposure of doctoral researchers to ethical, societal, and political questions related to their research topics, supplementing their didactic and research training in their development towards mature scientists. Furthermore, the idea was to invite keynote speakers with big names and holistic views to attract diverse attendees and the media.

Finally, and most importantly, we aimed for multiple social events and wanted to be sure that the coffee flowed freely and that drinks and snacks were in abundance during the poster sessions – the pairing of beer with pizza was particularly well received.

Surveys of participants in Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings have shown that there are limited opportunities for younger researchers to develop expertise in science communication, particularly in Germany and other parts of Europe. As science is pushing new boundaries on CRISPR, AI and other potentially controversial technologies, the ability to communicate with different publics is absolutely crucial for our community. As a social scientists working on science-public interfaces, it was therefore particularly exciting to collaborate with a group of scientists who are not just passionate about their work at the bench but also about bringing that work to society at large.

Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin

We applied for funding from various institutions including the German Research Foundation, two science foundations, our graduate schools, and universities. As such events are quite costly, we recommend organizers to approach multiple funding bodies to finance different aspects of the conference. While writing grants and final reports, keep in mind that your reviewers are people, make life as comfortable as possible for them! Format the proposal and the report so that it is easy to read and digest. This will reflect well on you and your institution and benefit the review outcome. Also, indicate as clearly as possible how the funding is to be used.

As the heart of our conference, we wanted to invite great speakers that have had an impact in their respective field, can captivate audiences with stellar presentation skills, and can see the bigger picture. In addition to academic excellence and research productivity, we were especially interested in speakers who contribute unconventional and progressive ideas to stimulate truly thought‐provoking discussions. But how do you judge who’s a good fit? Previous conference talks and feedback from your supervisors? Lists of laureates of science awards? An individual’s public outreach? Having previously spoken at a TED conference? We opted to fill all of these criteria and were very successful.

Louis Pasteur said: «Science knows no borders because knowledge belongs to humanity». In 1989, in Berlin, a wall fell under the attack of the young Berliners. Nowadays, the young generation is building a new peaceful world to favor the links between senior researchers and the tomorrow’s scientists. The conference organized in Berlin by the young international team illustrates their will to favor a fruitful cross talk between generations, between different fields of scientific investigation, between science and philosophy, between the scientists and the society, and between the Nations. It was great to share some of my expertise of years spent in research with the expectation that the young generation will not reproduce the errors of their seniors and will offer a new paradigm for an efficient research for the benefit of mankind.

Jean-Marc Cavaillon, Professor at the Institut Pasteur

Finally, we’d like to share some organizational tips to help making your conference a success:

Organize a kickoff event with an outstanding and comprehensive keynote talk that appeals to a diverse audience. For us, this translated to not placing this event in a university building, but in a fancy Berlin club at the riverside – a location that you only find in Berlin Hipster City Guides, which was very much appreciated by all participants. Throughout the conference, allow room for mingling and interdisciplinary discussions, which foster collaborations. 

Before, during and after the conference, use social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter to promote and document your event. Ask your personal network to spread the word as well. Think about including social sharing buttons and aim at providing a gimmicky conference hashtag (and use it!). Moreover, university press, mail lists of scientific societies and graduate schools are excellent ways to distribute your announcement and gather enthusiastic participants. There you are – participants will likely beat a path to your door.

So – why should graduate students engage in science conference organization? There are quite a few skills sets that will be acquired by going down that route. You’ll dabble in event and time management (this all has to run alongside your daily PhD duties). We have learned lessons in the delegation of tasks and in conflict management. A self-organized conference is a great playground for networking activities and (if half of it works out as expected) people will acknowledge your efforts, your ideas and all the time that you spent organizing the event. Overall, not only the attendees will acknowledge your input, but also the invited speakers, your PIs and the department, since you acted as a representative and performed official duties for your school and your university. Finally, the credits you’ll earn are for your grad school, but the skills are for life. So be bold and aim high!

Featured image: by Spektrumdw – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia.

About the Authors
  • Luca Bertzbach 0000-0002-0698-5395

    Luca is a postdoctoral researcher in virology at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany. Apart from herpesviruses, he’s interested in science communication and scientific writing. Twitter: @LucaBertzbach

  • Ankur Midha 0000-0003-2039-9680

    Ankur is completing his PhD in immunology the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany. He is also part of a new education and science communication venture called Flemingo (www.flemingo.de). Twitter: @FlemingoScience

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